Part I: Commuter Students: Why a Community Development Model is Needed

By Bradley Milks, Eric Fehr, Katie Caltagarone

    Image “Lynchburg Downtown” courtesy of Liberty University, taken by Ty Hester.

    Every person was designed by God with the purpose and intention of being in community.  Ecclesiastes points out that,

    “Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil.  For if they fall, one will lift up his fellow.  But woe to him who is alone when he falls and has not another to lift him up!  Again, if two lie together, they keep warm, but how can one keep warm alone?  And though a man might prevail against one who is alone, two will withstand him – a threefold cord in not quickly broken.” (Ecc. 4:9-12, ESV). 

    Each community may vary in size, structure, or purpose, but in each one there can be an opportunity to belong.  In the higher education setting, student community groups generally include work study, Greek life, honor programs, off-campus life, transfer groups, athletics, clubs, and so on.  Commuter students, however, often find purpose or connectedness within their local community off-campus, whether it be through church membership, recreational services, volunteer work, or some other form of community involvement.  Institutions do not always consider or understand these extraneous connections.

    “Community,” as defined by Merriam-Webster, is “a group of people who live in the same area (such as a city, town, or neighborhood), or who share the same interests, religion, race, etc.”  Often, we use this word to designate one’s place of belonging.

    I (Bradley) was a commuter student for one year while attending a university as a graduate student.  During this time, I worked three jobs totaling 80-90 hours a week.  I was also engaged and preparing for a wedding.  I was connected to three work environments, family, and friends.  Was I connected to the University?  Not really, but I never viewed that negatively.  I never believed it was the university’s responsibility to keep me connected to friends.  To say commuter students are disconnected is a misconception.  They are connected to various environments outside of the university setting. 

    The Commuter “Misconception”

    “Commuters are not connected to our University - how can we change that?”

    Commuters are often one of the largest, most in-flux groups found within a student body.  In highly residential campuses, this group may be very small or non-existent.  Research from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES, 2014), however, shows that commuters make up nearly 87% of the U.S. higher ed. undergraduate student body.  This is simply astounding.  Because of the diverse backgrounds, living arrangements, family circumstances, and other uncountable factors in their lives, off-campus students cannot be accurately viewed as a conformed group.  This makes it difficult to determine exactly how to serve this vast student sub-population.  It is also these unknowable factors to which they are connected. 

    Perhaps this is simply because of their locale, but many campuses tend to inadvertently marginalize the commuter student sub-population instead of creating bridges to welcome them into a place where they can find value and connectivity.  For example, commuting students are often “forgotten” or just not given thought when a university designs its campus or a new building.  From bus systems, office hours, and dining options to academic advising, the post office, and lounge space, the system is generally designed for the residential student.  A campus may provide many amenities for commuter students, but if not clearly identified, residential students may be the ones primarily using these facilities.

    Sense of Belonging and Community

    Many student affairs professionals are first and foremost concerned with the holistic development of their students.  But is this concern genuinely directed towards all our students?  Are we concerned about the holistic development of the entire community of students? Though our intentions may be to develop the whole person or population, we may have unintentionally forgotten who the “whole” includes.

    Through my (Fehr) first two years working with students residing off-campus, I have learned very quickly that the motif “do more with less,” so prevalent in student affairs, applies even more when working with off-campus students.  In fact, the work gets even more complex when one realizes commuters are much different than residential students.  Commuters vary in age, live in different neighborhoods, do not have fixed living situations, etc. - there is very little they all have in common except the fact that they all commute to campus and share the same basic human need to belong (Strayhorn 2016).

    Imagine for a moment an entire student body focused on loving God, making disciples within the body of Christ, and walking with the lost into the threshold of the Kingdom.  Not only would each individual be transformed, but their immediate connections (friends, family, and classmates) would also be directly impacted.  This is the very heart of how we seek to develop commuters at Liberty University.  Students have countless environmental factors impacting them on a daily basis.  This includes their families, friends, neighbors, social media applications, government officials, co-workers, etc.  The theory that we have begun to use to make this a realization is Bronfenbrenner’s Bioecological Model of Human Development (Bronfenbrenner, 2005), which places large emphasis on creating environments where our students can best develop.

    While studying bioecological models of human development, models that show how a person is psychologically and socially impacted by their environments and how person and environments change over time, it is clear there is an element missing to most: Jesus and His mission.  In 1 John 4, John details how a Jesus-follower can discern where a spirit is touched by God.  In this passage he writes, “He who is in you is greater than he who is in the world.” This is the element we believe is imperative if we as professionals are to address the commuter need for acceptance and community.  With Jesus as the centerpiece and His mission, the Great Commission, as an outward force, it becomes clear this type of student development has the opportunity to impact individuals, universities, cities, regions, and nations. 

    Helpful Practices

    Here are some quick and easy practices you can use now to create a positive community:

    • Leverage student leaders: these do not have to be students in actual leadership positions – look for students who attend your events regularly, interact easily, are willing to volunteer, and are capable of creating influence.
    • Make sure EVERY student who attends your events is welcomed by someone intentionally.
    • Research and understand the different types of students that live off campus: international, parent-students, traditional age, non-traditional age, ethnic backgrounds, etc. Look for ways to cater services to groups that have a difficult time with what is traditional.
    • Build campus partnerships to enrich current programming or create new programs.

    More in depth practices to follow in article three.

    Bradley Milks serves as the Director of Student Life at Liberty University.  He holds a Master of Divinity and Master of Arts in Church Planting from Liberty University, and is pursuing a Doctorate of Ministry in Church Planting and Evangelism with the Liberty University School of Divinity.

    Eric Fehr serves as Associate Director – Commuter Student Life in the Office of Student Life at Liberty University.  He holds a Master of Science in Education in Student Affairs Administration from the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, and is pursuing a Master of Religion: Discipleship and Church Ministry from Liberty School of Divinity. 

    Katie Caltagarone serves as Association Director – Commuter Student Life in the Office of Student Life at Liberty University.  She holds a Master of Arts in Music and Worship from Liberty University, and is pursuing a Doctorate of Worship Studies from Liberty University.


    National Center for Education Statistics (NCES).  (2014). Profile of undergraduate students: 2011-2012.

    Washington, D.C: Author. Retrieved from

    Strayhorn, T. L. (2016). Student development theory in higher education: A social psychological approach. New York, NY: Routledge.



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